Interview: Cynthia Kuhn

Please welcome Cynthia Kuhn, author of the Lila Maclean academic mystery series and other works.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I grew up on the edge of Lake Ontario, and I very much miss it. So my perfect day would be near a large body of water, waking up to the sound of waves. Breakfast on the patio overlooking the water. A few hours of writing, the kind where you are so in the zone that it’s like watching a film. Then swimming and walking on the beach looking for shells with my family, followed by dinner at a restaurant overlooking the water. Afterwards, there would be fireworks for some reason–reflected in the water.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
Really want to say my signature colors are “blush and bashful” (name that movie)! But the truth is: black clothes, shoes, and bags.  Though I do have a thing for long jackets, The Semester of Our Discontentespecially if they are textured in some way or have interesting details, which I wear over the black.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
My grandmother introduced me to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily Byrd Starr series, which I re-read endlessly. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride was one of my family’s favorite books…we read it aloud during long car trips. Also Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Plath, whom I also re-read endlessly and now teach courses on. As far as mysteries go, probably the writers who gave us Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, and Amanda Cross, who gave us professor/sleuth Kate Fansler (in addition to the thought-provoking literary criticism she wrote under her real name, Carolyn G. Heilbrun).

Do you listen to music when you write?
Usually classical. Or Vitamin Strings Quartet, who interpret pop songs. It has to be instrumental, though. I can’t listen to words and produce words at the same time.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Would a Heath Bar count? Delicious at first bite but instantly crumbles into shards in your mouth, sticks in your teeth, and makes for a very complicated experience. That’s what it’s like for Lila at Stonedale.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Spending time in academia. It’s a fascinating and complex place.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
Issues related to identity, equity, and voice.

Tell us about your main character.
Lila Maclean stands up for what she believes in. She wants to be a successful professor but is worried about navigating Stonedale’s tightly knit community with its unspoken codes, especially since she has a tendency to blurt things at inopportune times. Although Lila only reluctantly becomes a sleuth out of necessity, she has the appropriate determination to see things through. (I’m not sure if she knows that, but she does.)

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Nancy Drew meets Sandra Bullock’s character in any rom-com meets Alicia Florrick.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

  • Margaret Atwood, because of Alias Grace and if you haven’t read that amazing book (based on a true mid-19th century double murder!), you should run and do so immediately;
  • Amanda Cross (Carolyn G. Heilbrun), because maybe she would talk about her process in creating her wonderful character Professor Kate Fansler;
  • Dorothy Parker because oh, the wit! (Her story, “Big Blonde” has been called a mystery, so she counts, right?);
  • Arthur Conan Doyle because in addition to All the Genius, I would love to know which screen adaptation of Sherlock Holmes he likes the best;
  • Gertrude Stein, because no matter how many times I re-read Blood on the Dining Room Floor: A Murder Mystery, I still have questions; and
  • Agatha Christie, because of everything.

What’s next for you?
Book two in the Lila Maclean series, in which she once again becomes ensnared in mysterious happenings on campus!


Cynthia Kuhn teaches at Metropolitan State University of Denver and serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado.

Twitter: @cynthiakuhn

23 thoughts on “Interview: Cynthia Kuhn”

  1. Cynthia, will you invite me to your dinner party? I’d be scared to sit next to Dorothy, though. Great interview (loved the Heath bar) and congrats on your debut!


  2. Okay so first, I get the black thing. Second, I love-love-love your reading family. I’m known as the Book Giving Grandma at Christmas but it looks like you got the gene in spades. Also, I’m with you on the classical music bit, but sometimes I’ve just got to go with Katie Melua. Or Seal. Or Norah Jones.

    And I’m so, so, so excited about your release and writing career!


  3. Lisa, yes, you are absolutely invited–and thanks so much!

    Ellen, I would LOVE to see you and Dorothy trading bon mots! And many thanks for the kind words.

    Peg, thanks for your lovely excitement (so nice). I am delighted that you are known as the Book Giving Grandma–what a *wonderful* thing to be!


  4. I’d love to be on the staff at that dinner party. Just to soak up the genius. I wonder if Vitamin Strings is what my daughter sometimes listens to in the car (when it’s just her and I, she’s the DJ). I like them. Having read an early draft, I love the Heath bar analogy. And since I grew up less that five miles from Lake Erie, I totally get it.

    Congratulations again!


  5. Trixie Belden! So much love.

    Favorite Dorothy Parker quote:
    I wish I could drink like a lady
    I can take one or two at the most
    Three and I’m under the table
    Four and I’m under the host.

    Congratulations again, dear one.


  6. Congrats on your debut! You have made my TBR mountain grow yet again. Wonderful dinner party. I wanna come! And Lila sounds like a woman after my own heart. I feel her stress with those unspoken codes.


  7. Thanks, Mary! That Great Lakes thing is powerful, isn’t it? And thanks again for reading the manuscript–am glad you think the Heath Bar comparison works. 🙂

    LS, thanks for the kind words and for the Parker goodness! Trixie 4ever.

    Thanks, Sue! The unspoken codes are always so hard to negotiate, aren’t they? And will save a seat for you at the dinner party for SURE.


  8. I love Vitamin Strings Quartet — I have their Coldplay album. Maybe, I should listen to them while I write. Great interview!


  9. Loved the book. Loved your voice. All of your characters sound like English professors. Loved the campus. It reminded me of visiting Purdue where my grandfather taught. I’m still traumatized that they changed the fountain. I think that was in the 70’s. I want to sit by Gertrude Stein. She couldn’t be any scarier than a Mother Superior.


  10. YAY! Such a fun interview, Cynthia! Loved your book–Lila is a great character and I could definitely see the themes you mentioned. A Heath Bar is totally fitting (and delicious!). It’s going to be a packed dinner party because I want to go too! 🙂


  11. YAY! Glad to see your interview here. Congratulations on a wonderful book. I started it last night and I am already 1/4 through it. It’s a great read and a wonderful look at the complexities of academic life.


  12. Thank you, Sam! Finally is exactly what I was thinking too, ha!
    Kimberly, I think VSQ is perfect writing music. Once I started buying their albums from iTunes, I couldn’t stop!
    Thank you, nice Theresa! And your seating request is duly noted.
    Keenan, thank you very much!! And your seating request is duly noted, too.
    Thanks so much, Diane! Been a long time coming, right?
    Kate, I’m glad you liked Lila! Thank you for reading and for saying that. And you’re IN at the dinner party.
    Kait, thank you very much!

    ❤ ❤ ❤ to you all


  13. Okay, OT (sorta): The classical I’ve been listening to the most is one I discovered on our flight home from Italy last year: Michael Nyman, The Piano Concerto, Where the Bee Dances for Saxophone and Orchestra.


  14. thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I am a reader, not a writer, so I am always on the lookout for new books, especially with a main character such as Lila. I’ll look for your books.


  15. Peg, will check that out–appreciate the suggestions! I also love the soundtrack from THE GOOD WIFE. Forgot to mention that before…

    3 no 7, thank you! Hope you enjoy, if you decide to read. 🙂


  16. Sorry I’m late to this party! I can only write fiction to instrumental music as well. Haven’t heard of Vitamin Strings Quartet. I’ll have to check them out. Lately, I’ve been listening to harp music. I heard that it helped calm cats down (and it certainly did with one of ours) so I decided if it’s good for a cat, it’s good for me! Congrats on the book!


  17. I’m waaaay too late to this party, but I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to say, “Squee! So excited for you!” And you can blush and bashful all over the place if you want.


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